How to See Alaska's Northern Lights
Witnessing the ethereal green, purple, and red bands of the northern lights dancing in the night sky is an experience like no other. Also known as the aurora borealis, the northern lights are one of winter’s most magical phenomena, and Alaska is one of the best places in the world to view them. Here are ways you can maximize your chances of catching the aurora in Alaska:
When & Where to Go
The best time to see the northern lights in Alaska is from late August to late April, when the night skies are dark enough to see the aurora. If you’re interested in experiencing Alaska’s summer activities while still having chances to see the northern lights, plan your trip from mid-August through early October, when activities like wildlife viewing, hiking, fishing, cruising, and more are all available during the day and you have a chance to see the northern lights at night. For those looking for a winter northern lights adventure with opportunities for other snowy activities like skiing, dog sledding, and snowmachining, visit from late November through April.
Clear, dark skies away from ambient city lights are the key to northern lights viewing. Though the aurora can be seen statewide, the Interior, Arctic, and Southcentral regions of Alaska are the best for aurora viewing due to their location under the auroral oval. In Interior Alaska, head to Fairbanks for some of the best northern lights viewing in the state, including the widest variety of tours and specialty accommodations. The Southcentral region has several excellent basecamps for northern lights viewing, including Anchorage, Talkeetna, and the Mat-Su Valley. If you’d like to get more off-the-beaten-track in Arctic Alaska, some of the top spots for northern lights viewing are Coldfoot, Wiseman, Nome, and Utqiaġvik.
Regardless of where you go, the longer you stay, the better your chances are of seeing the northern lights. Reserve 3-5 nights for northern lights viewing so you have the best chances of getting the right conditions: clear skies and aurora activity. Be prepared to stay up late! The prime viewing hours for northern lights viewing are from 10:00pm – 2:00am.
Three Ways to see the Northern Lights in Alaska
1) Northern Lights Tours
One of the most popular ways for visitors to experience the northern lights in Alaska is on a day tour – or should we say, night tour. Northern lights tours take the guesswork out of tracking aurora activity and knowing where to go. Experienced guides keep close tabs on weather conditions and aurora forecasts and take you to their top secret spots for aurora viewing. Some tour operators let you book a several day window and will only take you out on nights where you have high chances of seeing the aurora.
Tours range from a few hours at night to full-day and night excursions that include other activities like dog sledding, sightseeing, and hot springs. Some tours focus specifically on northern lights photography. Many include access to warming huts or lodges so you can get cozy and enjoy a hot drink while viewing the lights. If you don’t have a car and you want to let experienced northern lights chasers lead the way, northern lights tours are the right pick for you. Most tours are based out of Fairbanks and Anchorage.
2) Overnight Packages
To maximize your chances of seeing the aurora, book an overnight northern lights viewing package. The longer you spend looking for the lights, the better, and overnight packages are the ideal way to extend your northern lights viewing to several days. Specialty accommodations like igloos with glass-dome ceilings, cabins and chalets with floor-to-ceiling windows, lodges with viewing platforms and atriums, and more offer a truly unique and comfortable way to view the northern lights. These cozy retreats are typically located outside of town, away from city lights, in prime aurora viewing spots – you don’t even have to leave your accommodations when the lights are out.
Northern lights overnight packages are led by local hosts and guides that keep tabs on aurora activity and provide wake-up calls when the northern lights are visible. Most packages are all-inclusive with delicious meals and daytime activities like dogsledding, wildlife viewing, snowmachine tours, snowshoeing, and more. If northern lights viewing is high on your list of Alaska experiences, book several nights with an overnight package or specialty accommodation for some of the best chances of seeing the aurora. The majority of specialty northern lights accommodations can be found in the Fairbanks area, though you'll find some packages and acommodations in Anchorage and remote Arctic communities like Coldfoot, Wiseman, and Bettles.
3) Independent Aurora Viewing
Do you prefer to go out on your own? Don’t have enough time in your itinerary to book a tour or overnight package? You can still catch the light show on your own with a little planning and research. Our #1 tip is to keep a close eye on the weather forecast and aurora trackers. The sky needs to be clear to see the aurora, so keep an eye on the local weather forecast for evenings with low cloud cover. The statewide aurora forecast provides a 27 day forecast of aurora activity along with daily forecasts in three-hour time intervals so you can see when and where the lights will be most active. If you're based in the Fairbanks area, the Fairbanks aurora tracker provides real-time aurora viewing updates along with a three-day activity and weather forecast.
While it’s best to drive to locations away from city lights, you can still catch the lights if you don’t have a car. If conditions are right, you can see the northern lights right in town from your hotel or accommodations. Check to see if your hotel offers an aurora wake-up call that will notify you if the lights are active. If the aurora forecast is high, go somewhere outside that gives you the most unobstructed view possible – and look in every direction. Sometimes the northern lights appear low on the horizon, or just in one part of the sky.
If you have a car, head away from town to a spot away from ambient light with unobstructed views of the sky. Here are some of the best spots for northern lights viewing in Alaska:
- Anchorage: Glen Alps trailhead, Point Woronzof
- Girdwood: Moose Meadows
- Talkeetna: Riverfront Park, Denali State Park
- Palmer / Wasilla: Eklutna Trailrace, Hatcher Pass, Palmer Hay Flats
- Fairbanks: Cleary Summit, Murphy Dome, Creamer’s Field, Chena Hot Springs Resort
- North Pole: Chena Lake Recreation Area
- Denali National Park
- Coldfoot & Wiseman
The prime viewing hours are between 10pm and 2am, so be prepared to stay up late, dress in warm layers, and be patient! Check the statewide aurora forecast to see when the lights are most likely to be active. Even if the aurora forecast is high, they might only be visible for a short part of the night, so having patience and waiting for the lights will pay off. No matter how you choose to see the aurora borealis in Alaska - whether guided, un-guided, or from your own private cabin or cozy lodge - you will never forget your experience viewing nature's most spectacular light show.
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